Winter comes early here in the southern Rockies. Nearly always we have our first snow by Halloween, and this year it came ten days early, leading us to hope for the kind of snowpack we had years ago which might lessen next summer’s terrifying drought.
My dog Pip of course doesn’t worry about drought or the larger implications of snow. He only knows that it’s perfect to romp in, to scoop up in thirsty mouthfuls, to send flying behind his flying paws. What a relief to be unconscious, I sometimes think, and then I wonder where he was last October, when he would have been a tiny puppy owned by someone who threw him out or simply lost him—for he is an escape artist who can squeeze under any fence or through the smallest opening in search of freedom.
The snowfall heralds real winter, even though our aspens are still golden, leading me to plan the season’s reading in the hope of more evenings spent quietly by the fire. For a long time I’ve wanted to read the iconic works about the West; so far, I only have Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert under my belt, consumed during a Colorado River rafting trip and showing the effects of a dip in the water. That dismaying account of the history and misuse of the West’s rivers serves as my introduction.
Now I’m beginning David Gessner’s All The Wild That Remains, a joint biography of Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey; I don’t believe I’d heard of either one of them before I moved to New Mexico twenty-three years ago.
Gessner lists other books he feels are basic to an understanding of the West, among them two by Pam Houston and Terry Tracy Williams. It struck me that both these fabulous women write about the exploitation of natural resources, as the men do, but in Houston’s case the natural resources exploited are women.
When I read her Cowboys Are My Weakness some years ago, I was annoyed by the various narrators’ willingness, even eagerness, to fall in love with and put themselves in the power of impossible men, cowboys so devoted to machismo that for a woman to dent their surface was clearly impossible. I understand more about the attraction now.
Many women, particularly now after decades of the women’s movement and Title 9 legislation that allowed girls equal entry into competitive sports, are adventurers, risk takers. Perhaps we see as our ultimate adventure and risk unavailable men—a loss in a world that has other, more worthy risks and adventures, but there it is.
The brilliant writer Susanna Moore goes to the heart of the matter with her novel, In The Cut. If you don’t know the meaning of this phrase—I didn’t—you’ll learn it, with horror, in the last pages.
Moore’s narrator, a highly intelligent, educated, gifted and privileged woman with access to the world of international diplomacy, entwines her fate with two undercover detectives in a very dark New York. Both are murderers. She learns this, little by little, even discovering her best friend after the pair have raped and decapitated her.
And yet she believes that she is in control and she continues to fall under their erotic spell—this is some of the strongest, most vivid writing about sex I’ve ever read—until, inevitably—as the reader has, with horror, foreseen—she, too, is cut to pieces.
Women have been homesteaders, we have owned gambling halls and brothels, some of us have even grown rich. But our voices, in the history of the west as in so many other histories, are rarely heard.
We must make the link, I believe, between the exploitation of Western land, air and water and the exploitation of women’s bodies, writing about the whores in the man camps around the oil fields in the Dakotas, now out of work as oil prices drop; the women giving birth in covered wagons and leaving dead babies in shallow graves beside the trail; the women running ranches with the aid of cowboys who may give them more trouble than help; the women at every Al-Anon meeting and in every psychologist’s office—and of course this is true not only in the West—talking about trying to survive with abusive drunks, country versions of the criminal detectives in In The Cut.
We will never succeed in taking off their boots and spurs, nor will we succeed in wearing them ourselves. The last cowboy I knew wore boots as small as mine, but his power to wield pain and disappointment did not depend on the size of his feet.
Pip! Let’s go! There’s time for one more romp before lunch.